The word “institution” seems to carry negative connotations for many people in our culture today. In the realm of spirituality, this is often expressed as being “spiritual but not religious.”
“Spiritual” is associated with discovering deeper meaning in life, acknowledging the mystery and wonder of existence, and growing in our ability to live together in meaningful human relationships.
“Religious” is associated with rigidity, dogma, rules, regulations, and restrictions. Institutions are seen as religious, not spiritual.
But, can spirituality thrive without an institution?
Individual private personal spirituality may survive without the support of any form of institutional structure.
There are many wonderful ways to nurture a personal spiritual life. Going for a conscious walk in creation will deepen my awareness of the mystery and beauty of life. Playing with a baby will connect me with the gentleness and openness that are essential ingredients of a spiritual life. Making a donation to a worthwhile cause may satisfy my spiritual need to make an offering in thanksgiving for the blessings I perceive in my life. I can do all these things as a private individual.
But, Christian spirituality has always held that there is a vital communal dimension essential to the development of a strong healthy spiritual life.
When Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” (Matthew 18:20) he certainly did not intend to indicate that the Divine Presence is absent when I go for a solitary walk on the beach. But Jesus did seem to believe that a special power and presence becomes available when we gather in community to acknowledge the reality of that presence.
There is an aspect of spiritual growth that only takes place when we enter into faithful, responsible relationship with other people. The act of sticking it out in the often difficult and sometimes painful reality of human community enables us to grow spiritually in a way that is unlikely to occur without the sometimes awkward presence of others.
It is impossible for “two or three” to gather without some form of organization. It is necessary to agree upon a time to assemble, a place to gather, and some idea of how long we will meet. We need to have at least a vague outline of what we will do when we are together and who will fulfill what roles.
Whenever there is organization, there is some form of institution. The word institution simply signifies “a custom, practice, relationship, or behavioral pattern of importance in the life of a community or society.” The institution is the structure that enables our gathering to happen with some degree of efficiency. There is no community without some form of institution.
The problem with institutions is not that they exist, but that they have a tendency to take on a life of their own. There is always a risk that institutions stop serving the well-being of the gathering and instead gather people only to perpetuate the institution.
Fifty years ago people may have been willing to pledge allegiance to an institution because they believed in the goodness and importance of institutions. Those days are gone. We live in a culture that questions everything. We can no longer take for granted that our institutional structures will be honoured or even respected. We cannot rely upon the unquestioning loyalty of our constituents to keep institutional structures in place.
Whether we like it or not, people will walk away from any institution they perceive to be no longer serving the needs of the people it exists to support. We may lament the breakdown of institutional loyalty; but complaining about it will not change the reality. Better marketing and more efficient operational procedures are not the answer.
The challenge for institutions today is to consider how they can best serve the people they hope to attract. We need to rethink how our institutions look and how they operate in order to ensure that those who share in the institution feel the institution exists to support their flourishing.
What kind of customs, practices, relationships, and behavioral patterns does the church need to develop in order to support the development and nurture of a thriving spirituality in our culture? What does a healthy institution look like in a culture that is deeply suspicious of institutions?